Frodo could scarcely hear the thunder of the sea and the mewing cries of seabirds, so hard was his heart hammering in his ears. The sky remained empty, save for the wheeling gulls and the Sun, mounting towards noon. His cloak blew back and he caught it with a sidelong glance at Gandalf, who waited patiently astride Shadowfax. He watched without comment, his brow creased. He looked as though he should have a pipe between his lips. Not that either of them had tasted pipeweed for many years.
Frodo felt his lips curl with a wry smile, and returned his gaze to the waters, but this time there was a white shape there, terribly small, shining brightly in the Sun. His fingers tightened on the reins of his pony, making it dance, and he forced them to relax, patting its neck to steady it. Even here, things were ordered according to their nature.
A small group of Elves appeared upon the sea-wall and three of them dismounted, then began the journey down the carven stair towards the dock. That would be Elrond, Galadriel, and Glorfindel, their silver-grey cloaks welcome spots of softness against the stark white of the opal and alabaster wall. A fitting group to greet Samwise, they had agreed.
Frodo bit his lip; the ship was nearer now, sails full-bellied in the brisk onshore breeze. By the time the elves drew near and took up their places at the stone balustrade, it was nosing around the quay, and its sails emptied and hung slack, falling and furling as the mariners drew on the ropes. Golden oars emerged and dipped into the surface of the bay, droplets falling from them like gleaming diamonds.
Frodo felt the strangest urge to flee, to rein his pony around and heel it hard; he might yet reach the dune grasses and be lost to view by the time the ship moored. A foolish thought, a foolish fear, surely-- he had waited the most part of a lifetime for this moment. And yet, fear mingled with joy in his breast, an almost forgotten sensation that made Gandalf's eyes seek him, lips pursed with concern.
"Neither of you is the hobbit he was," Gandalf spoke, as always aware of Frodo's thought as soon as he was himself, if not sooner. "And neither of you is the hobbit he shall yet be."
Frodo felt an unaccustomed spike of irritation and spared a hard thought for the fatalistic equivocations of the Valar, though he knew them for wisdom, and Gandalf chuckled. "Patience, Frodo."
And yet Frodo feared. Would Sam be old and worn, feeble? Would life have treated him well, or harshly? Would his wits be wandering or sound? Would he still remember his fondness for his old master?
The keel of the ship brushed the dock and the bowline was thrown and set; soon mooring lines were in place around all the worn pillars that stood there, anchoring the ship firmly on the lee side of the dock. Frodo fidgeted, and his pony danced again. The gang-board was lifted and laid, and Frodo tried to fill his chest, which suddenly seemed it would not take enough air.
One of the Elves bent over something Frodo could not see beyond the tall gunwale of the ship. "Here, now, none of that foolishness." The voice that answered the motion was a little reedy but sharp with annoyance; Frodo glimpsed motion, and realized it was the swing of a staff. It struck the elf in the shin and pushed him aside firmly, for all the world like Lobelia Sackville-Baggins wielding her umbrella. "I'm old, but I'm not so old as that, yet. I'll climb off myself or not at all, thankee."
Frodo felt his eyes widen; the elves chuckled and made way. Frodo's teeth sank in his lip as Sam appeared, looking hale and cantankerous, his curls wind-tossed and white as snow. His glance raked the dock and settled on Frodo, looking him up and down, sharp as a gimlet. He nodded satisfaction and stepped onto the board, using his silver-shod walking stick for punctuation as much as for support as he made his way down on to the dock.
Frodo sat still, eyes drinking Sam in, shocked by the change in him-- still robust, he looked, strong and hearty, but his face was worn and lined. Frodo could not move, breath frozen in his chest as Sam stepped off the plank. He swayed a moment and frowned down at the stone under his feet, thumping it with his staff, and Frodo felt his eyes well with tears and his throat fill with laughter, but Sam didn't hesitate further.
He stepped forward and caught Frodo's pony by the bridle. "Frodo Baggins, as I live and breathe, you haven't changed a hair."
Gandalf stirred and his hand fell on Frodo's shoulder, and Frodo woke from his daze. "Sam."
Sam's weathered face split into a broad grin. "Won't you come down and give me a proper greeting? Or must I climb up?"
Frodo hastily slithered down, all but missing his stirrup, and Sam scooped him up, clapping his back fiercely before putting his hands on Frodo's shoulders and holding him away. "A bit of snow in your hair, I reckon. Not so much as mine, though. You'll have to keep trying." He let Frodo go with a wink and turned to Gandalf. "Is Bilbo still with us?"
"He stayed at home. Journeying for more than a league or two doesn't agree with him these days," Gandalf smiled.
"It will be a fine thing to see him again!" Sam beamed, and stepped forward, past his pony. "If that isn't Shadowfax, I'm a rabbit," he eyed the white stallion. "Sea air agrees with him, it seems. My poor old Bill ought to have come along when you went. He's been dead and gone these forty years now." He paused then, and lifted his face a bit higher. "You're looking well, Gandalf." Ducking neatly under the pony's head, he reached up, and Gandalf bent down to clasp his hand. Sam shook it firmly.
"Well, it won't do to dawdle about here until the sun sets." Sam released Gandalf and the pony at once. "Is this my beast? A fine animal. Good horseflesh." He mounted, leaving Frodo, dithering on the dock, to follow hastily in his wake.
"You are looking well yourself, Mayor Gamgee." Gandalf reined Shadowfax back a step, revealing the other Elves.
"Elrond. Glorfindel. Lady Galadriel!" Sam's face creased with a smile of pure pleasure. "Well this is a treat, and no mistake." Sitting on the pony's back, he was even with their eyes, and he heeled it expertly to approach them, again holding out his hand.
Frodo felt himself blinking and also felt the pressure of Gandalf's eyes on him, though he did not look to meet them. A thousand carefully sculpted words lay unused on his tongue, woefully inadequate for the moment-- but it did not seem Samwise found it so.
The elves shook Sam's hand gracefully, one by one. "I've enough stories to weary every one of you," Sam announced, spreading his hands to encompass them all. "Where shall we find a roof and a sup so I can share them all? Now that I'm off that blasted boat, I think I could eat again."
Gandalf laughed. "Well-said, Samwise. There is a lodging for us in the city, and food is waiting. I am certain we would all eagerly hear what you have to say."
They rode slowly so the walkers could keep up until they reached their horses, and then they picked up the pace, jogging easily along. Frodo nudged his pony up next to Sam's, still feeling strangely shy.
"You have a grandson," Sam nodded to Elrond, who rode next to him. "Eldarion, they call him: a fine strapping lad, kingly enough to suit his lineage."
"I have seen this in my mind," Elrond answered, "but I would hear all you have to tell, also. It is not possible to know more than a hint of what passes in the lands beyond the bending of the world."
Sam obliged him, spinning tales of Minas Tirith even as they reached their lodging, dismounted, and went inside-- tales of Arwen and Aragorn and their reign, and Merry and Pippin also. Frodo listened, feeling somewhat lost and strangely empty, for Rose and Elanor and all Sam's family were woven into them. When Frodo shifted, Sam reached out to cover his hand, and Frodo eased for a moment, but Sam hardly looked at him, never losing the thread of his tale.
Even as he listened, Frodo felt Gandalf's eyes on him, and the hollow feeling in his belly deepened. He freed his hand at length, but put aside his food untouched, and sipped his wine-- like light made liquid, that wine, from the vineyards of Yavanna-- and listened to Sam describing the vintages of the Shire that surpassed it.
"Mayor Gamgee," he said softly when a lull fell in the talk, surprised to hear the words fall from his lips, but feeling their rightness ever since Gandalf had spoken them. "Has your journey wearied you?"
"No, not a bit of it," Sam said stoutly. "At least, nothing a fine talk with old friends won't mend." And he was off again, rambling on with great contentment as the Sun sank low and the stars rose. Frodo could hear the Elves and Maiar singing in the streets to greet them, and after a time, when Sam paused for a gulp of wine, Frodo rose.
"I want a bit of air before bed, and a walk under the stars of Elbereth in the gardens," he said, and bowed to each of the Elves in turn, and to Sam last. "I suppose I shall see you tomorrow."
"Should I come?" Sam's glance back at his table companions showed him torn, and Frodo managed to dredge a reassuring smile from his fading store of poise. There once would have been no question that Sam would accompany him, but now? He did not want to leave his tales, and in truth, Frodo found himself in desperate need of solitude.
"Please, don't trouble yourself on my account." He bowed again and made his escape, evading Gandalf's eye-- and therefore missing Gandalf's restraining hand rising to settle on Samwise's shoulder.
The gardens were cooler than the lamp-lit room, illuminated by the soft radiance of the stars. As bright as the light of a full moon, the starlight seemed, shimmering on boughs that sighed in the ocean breeze, their clusters of leaves swaying and rustling, the paths beneath them dappled in lambent pale light and fearless shadow.
Frodo felt cool, dewy turf alternate with the lingering heat of sun-soaked stone under his feet as he walked, the perfume of a hundred spring blossoms fragrant but unnoticed in his nostrils. His hands were stuck deep in his pockets, and he did not look up at the stars, even as the Elves and Maiar raised a song of gladness to greet them. He wandered, seeking a bench or seat tucked away from gentle eyes, but wherever he went, the song gathered, swelling in corners and under eaves, filling the night with its living breath.
It was a wondrous song and fair, and it was well-known to him, but it pierced his heart with bleak sorrow and loneliness to hear the joy in it. Tonight he wanted none of that, so he turned his path aside and downwards, towards the sea.
As he walked verses formed and clung inside his mind, scattered fragments as faint but as familiar as if he had heard them before, but only once, in a dream. They tasted fair and terrible; to hear them the better, he left the city and wandered along the shore, lips moving with the words, weaving loss into song.
My hands were torn and my knees worn,
and years were heavy upon my back,
when the rain in my face took a salt taste,
and I smelled the smell of sea-wrack.
Birds came sailing, mewing, wailing;
I heard voices in cold caves,
seals barking, and rocks snarling,
and in spout-holes the gulping of waves.
Winter came fast; into a mist I passed,
to land's end my years I bore;
snow was in the air, ice in my hair,
darkness was lying on the last shore....
At length Frodo found himself upon the quay, where the boat that had brought Sam rode the wavelets, moored safe. The gang-board had been lifted, and the sails hung in heavy folds. Frodo passed the boat steadily and went to the end of the quay, where two tall pillars stood empty, awaiting some great ship gone afar. He sat down upon the stones where his own feet had first touched the shores of Valinor, and looked out across the Sea, which had sundered him from his Sam.
His eyes strained themselves at the horizon, where the dark line of the Sea met sky, the brisk wind raising pale crests of sparkling foam on the water. He had the absurd feeling that perhaps, if he waited patiently enough, another boat might come, slipping silently through the waves and on to the Straight Road, filled with merry, singing Elves and the golden-haired, shy-smiling Sam of his memory, come to find him. But this, he understood now, was a lie he had spun for himself and woven into his dreams until it pierced them all like threads of molten gold, as cruel and pitiless in its false hope as any bleak and vicious lie that had once been rooted deep through him by the malicious will of Sauron.
He had once had that Sam, and the golden future of warmth and love and the Shire-- both of those things within the very palm of his hand, and had tossed them away forever.
Frodo felt his chest hitch thickly, and he covered his mouth with his hand to hide his grief from the waves, tasting salt there as he bit down on the soft pad below his thumb, sinking his teeth until the pain of the bite pushed aside the agony of his heart, then biting harder, until he tasted copper, but nothing would make the anguish leave him completely, and so he let his hand fall, cradling it against his chest. The Sam of his memory was dead and gone, and Frodo himself had sundered them. Would that he could sink his teeth deeper, tear out this pain, and fling it away from him into fire!
"It is gone, and all is dark and empty," he said, and his stomach clenched like a knotted fist, and he struggled onto his knees, clinging to the pillar as he retched into the Sea.
When he was empty of wine, his throat burning with acid and his tongue sour, Frodo lay drained on the quay, looking up at the stars, without the will to move his arm from where it lay dangling over the edge, a single drop of blood trickling down to the end of his finger, like a thread of chill in the wind.
It came to him as the waves soughed on the beach, never pausing in their patient, timeless march, that there was a duty before him, one that would demand all his strength-- to go on without everything he had denied himself: Sam, the Shire, a family, a life of his own. To endure, and continue. This time, Frodo must not fail.
He drew himself up after a time and marked how far the stars had wheeled in the sky, then scrubbed away the blood from his hand. Drawing his shoulders straight, he climbed into the city.
Morning dawned not long after he lay down in his soft bed, but it mattered little; he would not have found rest had he lain for hours. He arose when he heard the household stir, and went down to the table, where the board was laid with fresh, hot bread and butter, and golden honeycomb, with strawberries and cream in bowls. He ensured the best portion was still to be given to Sam, and sat down at his own plate, forcing himself to chew and swallow so as not to offend his hosts.
Sam arrived soon after, still blinking a bit; he came to Frodo and put one gnarled hand on his shoulder. His touch startled Frodo, who looked down at his hand for a moment without recognition, and then looked up quickly to meet Sam's smile, answering it with an effort not to seem false. He felt shame that it took effort, but he recovered by serving the berries and fussing over the dishes. Before Sam finished, Frodo excused himself to check on the readiness of their horses-- and found Gandalf on the step with his head bent, absorbed over a carved wooden pipe.
"Pipe-weed!" Frodo's eyes grew round at the scent of smoke.
"There's a pouch and a pipe for you, too, if you had stayed long enough last night to find out." Gandalf tipped his head and blew a ragged smoke ring. "He wants to try growing it here. He's brought a pack full of cuttings and seeds to try."
"We'd better get him back to the hole, then, so he can plant them. Bilbo will be beside himself with waiting." Frodo fidgeted a little.
"And you, Frodo?" Gandalf's glance was quick and keen.
Frodo felt his shoulders sag a little as he sighed. "He's not what I expected."
"Precisely what did you expect, Frodo? You left him to take your place as Mayor and master of Bag End. I rather think he's made a good job of it, all things considered. He's a bit more provincial than you and Bilbo, certainly, but he was hardly to the manor born." Gandalf took a draw of smoke, then coughed and frowned at his pipe. "I've lost the habit, I'm afraid, if not the skill." He passed over the pipe and Frodo inhaled the smoke carefully, warned by his example.
It tasted bitter and sweet at once, and was husky and sharp and smooth and harsh at the same time; it exploded onto his tongue with a thousand flavors of home. Frodo's eyes slid shut and he choked back a sob-- his favorite blend, a memory drawn so sharp he was almost certain that if he opened his eyes, he would find himself back in the Shire. He lowered his head, fingers shaking as he took the pipe from his mouth, and stared down at his toes, curled into the soft green grass.
A hand fell on the small of his back and slid around his waist; without opening his eyes he knew it was Sam. He squeezed them tight shut and breathed, the smoke from the bowl wafting up under his nostrils and the grass warm under his feet. If he could, he would have lived in this moment forever, hung poised between present and past, but a gull's mewing cry echoed and broke the spell.
"It smells of home," he said, very low in his throat, tears threatening to choke him.
"I thought a bit of smoke would go down well after so long without." Sam's hand was firm and steady on Frodo's waist. "Don't smoke it too fast, or you'll remember what it's like to be a lad again."
Frodo nodded, half-frozen; Sam's hand on his waist felt like a spot of sunlight, sinking radiant heat into his bones. Following so fast on the heels of the pipe-weed, it was almost more than he could bear. He took a deep, shuddering breath. "Thank you, Sam." He mustered a smile and made himself look up to meet Sam's eyes, holding them for a moment before he stepped away and went down the path towards the stable. Ducking inside, he was glad to find himself alone; he put his back against the wall to steady himself and struggled to catch his breath.
He could still feel Sam's touch on him, burning like fire; he had not expected to react so strongly, and in fact had not reacted in quite the same way before when this Sam touched him, but he had been sunk in memory, and for a moment it had been the Sam of his memories who laid hands upon him-- all too like the Sam of his dreams, caressing him as a lover, not greeting him as a friend.
A horse whickered, and one of the Elves answered it with gentle words, near-meaningless syllables. The sound soothed Frodo gradually as he hid there, waiting for his racing heart to slow and his rebellious body to fall silent again. The scent of horses gradually filled his nostrils and eclipsed the pipe-weed, and the cool of the stone helped soothe his treacherous flesh.
He stepped out at last and went to the stalls where the Elves worked, speaking softly to them; they had perhaps half an hour before the horses were ready. He retreated and made this announcement, then escaped to his bedchamber and busied himself gathering his things and making the sleeping couch, which was rather too tall for him to do a good job, but it consumed the remaining time.
"Ready to go?" Frodo was struck by the tone of Sam's voice-- low and gentle, just like the Elf who had calmed the skittish horse. Had Sam always spoken to him so? He could not recall, but the tone rankled, nonetheless.
Frodo drew himself upright gracefully. "Quite," he answered, and took the strap of his pack. "Let's be off, then. Bilbo is waiting." He led the way from the house, pausing only to thank their hosts, and climbed on to his pony, feeling the itch of Sam's thoughtful gaze resting between his shoulder blades every step of the way.
The ride was a peaceful one, and a pleasant; they kept the shore on their left and rode over gentle rolling hills on sandy cobbles, then flowering marshes filled with birds and marsh-mallow. The tide was out, and Frodo marked oyster beds and the spouts of buried sea-creatures, which he pointed out to Sam, carefully keeping the conversation going.
"If you say those are fit for eating, I won't gainsay you, but I'm not convinced," Sam admitted when they passed near enough an oyster-bed to look inside the razor-sharp shells and see the grey creatures that lay there, looking pale and drowned. "Though I've heard the men of Minas Tirith say they do wonders for the... constitution." Sam cleared his throat with a hint of disapproval, sounding exactly like his Gaffer.
"I have heard it, too." Gandalf responded, unflappable, when Frodo found no reply. "And I rather think the men of Minas Tirith need nothing of the sort."
"No more they do," Sam nodded emphatically. "Though mayhap at my age, I could stand a few."
Gandalf chuckled, and so did Sam; Frodo managed a smile and said nothing, discomfited by the unexpected turn of the conversation. He had heard no such rumors, or he would have kept his silence-- and perhaps he would have eaten fewer oysters over the years, he thought ruefully, looking out over the pale beach towards the waves.
When they had traversed the tidal marsh, it remained only to pass through the dunes that lay in an irregular, rolling band between the sea and Frodo's sheltered homestead. The Elves had built a narrow boarded walkway across the marshes, and it continued over the sand to ease the passage of horses; it was just wide enough to accommodate the little shaded dog-cart Bilbo used when he made his infrequent journeys to visit with Elrond and his other Elven friends on high days and feast days, which came infrequently throughout the year.
Frodo was glad to see the eave of his and Bilbo's low house appear from behind a dune, overtopped by dune grasses and a few wind-twisted young pines, and sheltering the green that was its scrubby bit of garden. The "smial" was made of wood and plaster, but Elves had piled sand about it, and it looked as though it burrowed properly into the heart of a tall dune. The soil was too sandy for what you might call a proper kitchen garden, but here, any plant that put root to soil seemed to thrive.
A few goats and kids danced nimbly about the dunes, and chickens pecked amidst the pebbles of the path; the arrangement did well enough to suit Bilbo and Frodo. Frodo's weekly trips in to Kortirion provided them with anything else they might need, for there were Elves in Valinor who delighted in husbandry and the tending of plants, and under their skilled hands, enough bounty came forth for everyone to thrive.
Sam took the place in with bright, interested eyes, making no comment, though Frodo knew him well enough to reckon that he thought Frodo would be better served by moving his home back a few hundred ells into the wooded hills, where oaks and elms and beech grew, and fresh green grass. But Frodo liked the sea, and Frodo liked his fishing, and Bilbo was content to indulge him.
There Bilbo sat, waiting at the grayed wooden table they kept beneath a shady eave, shading his eyes with his hand as he gazed anxiously along the path. He reached for his stick and pushed himself upright-- an old habit, perhaps not strictly necessary given his fine health, but it pleased him to remain as he wished.
"Mister Bilbo Baggins, as I live and breathe!" Sam heeled his pony forward with delight. Frodo noticed, with wry amusement, that Bilbo apparently still merited his honorific, for now at least. "You've done a sight better than beating the Old Took, now, haven't you!"
"Samwise Gamgee!" Bilbo crowed, and lifted his stick to jab towards the path. "I've told Frodo you'd come all these sixty years, and here you are, with as many grey hairs as me, into the bargain!"
"A few more grey hairs than you, I think!" Sam threw back his head and laughed, sliding off his pony and leading it forward, slinging the reins around a post. "For I haven't started losing any yet!"
"You've grown a cheeky tongue, you have!" It didn't seem to bother Bilbo one bit; he beamed at Sam and held out his arms, and the two embraced. "Ninety looks well on you, lad-- for lad you'll always be in my eyes, though you turn a hundred and twenty!"
Sam chuckled. "It takes a cheeky tongue to manage the mayor's job, if I may say."
"I daresay it does, and I daresay you've done a fine job as Mayor, too." Bilbo held Sam back and gazed at him with pleasure. "Frodo, lad, Gandalf. Welcome. There's a good supper ready in the kitchen-- butter and bread, and plenty of fresh-caught fish and apples. I can still turn my hand to the baking, when I must!"
"I think I shall come in, and stay a day or two," Gandalf agreed mildly. "Shadowfax will see the other horses back to Kortirion, and return when I need him."
"Shadowfax! I was almost forgetting." Bilbo stepped forward, leaning on his stick and fishing in his pocket, coming up with an apple. "I've a reputation to keep up, you know! I won't have it said I don't keep a hospitable table for all my guests!"
Shadowfax neighed, a sound like laughter, then delicately lifted the apple from Bilbo's palm and crunched it between his teeth. "And there are oats, if you'll have them," Bilbo continued. "Frodo, fetch the oats out, lad; I've forgotten to bring them."
Frodo did, and he poured them in to the two shallow mangers that stood under the eave. Shadowfax led the horses forward and they ate, and without being asked, Sam went to the well and hauled buckets of water for them. The Elves said it was a bit brackish, so close to the sea, but it seemed as good as wine to Bilbo and Frodo.
Sam also helped unsaddle the ponies, and carried one of the heavy leather saddles inside, following Frodo, who carried the other. They set them upon their stands in the tack room just off the hall, Frodo watching as Sam's eyes swept the place with keen curiosity, resting first on white shells and then on delicate branched corals that Frodo had found and brought in to put on shelves for himself and Bilbo to look at.
"I never saw such." Sam reached forward and lifted a delicate, slotted disk with a fair pattern of fronds embossed on the center, arranged like the rays of a star. "Do you find these in the sea?"
"Washed up on the sands," Frodo explained, feeling as though his tongue had grown awkward and thick in his mouth. "After a high tide."
"And this other strange stuff, too?" Sam tested the point of a branch of coral with a questing fingertip.
"It grows under the sea, in great ridges-- reefs. Storms break off bits and wash them ashore."
"Does it storm here often?"
"When Ulmo or Ossë wills it." Frodo shifted his feet; he had been in a few audiences with some of the Valar since his arrival, but the only Vala or Maia he felt truly comfortable near was Gandalf. As Sam had once commented about Galadriel, the Valar made Frodo feel like he 'hadn't got nothing on,' especially the ones that didn't choose to wear bodies made of flesh, like Gandalf did. "Every natural thing has its season, and works to the glory of Iluvatar. Even storms are beautiful. Elves come to warn us when the storms will be bad enough we need to go inland."
"A good thing." Sam lifted a shell and ran his finger along the delicate satiny pink of its inner lip. "I've seen snails, and I reckon these beasts must be something like that, to look at the shells they leave, but I'd hate to see what such a snail would do to my garden!"
"They live under the sea as well, and don't survive for long on land." Frodo fidgeted. "Shall we go out?"
Sam looked aside to him, the shell still cradled in his callus-horned fingers, a keen look that penetrated to the heart of Frodo's discomfort. "I won't bite you," he said, very softly. "For all that the years have weathered me, I'm still your Sam."
Frodo reddened, his face heating with shame. "We shall have to get to know one another again," he said politely, feeling the words for the stiff and awkward things they were.
"I mean to do that," Sam said, and set the shell down with care. "But there's time for that in plenty, I'm guessing. For now, let's go out, and I'll give Bilbo his pipe-weed. That ought to please him!"
"That it will," Frodo agreed, and followed him out.